University of Helsinki: COVID lockdowns increased burning in globally-important protected areas

Madagascar is world-famous for its biodiversity, and for the ongoing loss of its forests and the unique species contained there. “When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we were worried that lockdowns would interrupt protected area management activities such as livelihood support programs, trainings, patrolling and monitoring, and introduce uncertainty and economic difficulties to local communities living around protected areas”, says lead author Dr Johanna Eklund.

from the University of Helsinki. “I wanted to be of use in this situation”, says Eklund, who has been conducting research in Madagascar for almost 10 years. “I realised I could monitor the situation remotely and provide information for those who do the difficult job of conserving Madagascar’s threatened forests. Satellites pick up fires really well and show where protected areas are under pressure.”

The international team developed a novel approach to estimate the “excess” fires occurring in the protected areas (those over and above what might be expected due to climatic conditions) and therefore attributable to the pandemic. They found that during 5 months of strict lockdown in 2020, fires increased dramatically in protected areas. Interestingly, burning quickly returned to normal levels once management operations were allowed to resume, despite Madagascar’s borders’ still being closed and economic activity still being depressed. “A particular strength of this study is the ability to use decades of past weather and fire data to estimate what happens under normal circumstances, and from that to single-out the highly anomalous burning patterns seen in 2020”, says Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge and senior author of the study.

Seasonal variation in fire and rainfall dynamics explains which protected areas were most affected by excess fires during the pandemic. Neither the type of protected area nor the organization responsible for managing the protected area had an effect. Domoina Rakotobe, former national coordinator of the network of terrestrial protected areas managers (Forum Lafa), explains “Just two months after the pandemic hit Madagascar, protected area managers were very worried of escalating threats in their sites. The high levels of burning during the lockdowns clearly shows the value of on-the-ground management activity (for example, protected area teams working with communities to support local livelihoods and safeguard natural resources). The strong and immediate impact of interrupting these activities emphasizes the importance of keeping them operating under challenging situations and into the future as the pandemic prolongs”. The team stresses that such management activities have to be developed and carried out in collaboration with local communities to ensure equity and inclusivity.

“This study is a beautiful example of the value of continuously collected global remotely sensed data in revealing what is happening to ecosystems around the world. Combined with in-depth local knowledge and understanding this can result in highly policy-relevant analysis which simply would not be possible otherwise”, says Professor Tuuli Toivonen, leader of the Digital Geography Lab, and co-author on the study.

In the buildup to the COP15-meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which will set the agenda for how to stop the biodiversity crisis in the coming decade, the study offers valuable lessons. “More attention should be given to the management of protected areas, not just to the expansion of their coverage” concludes Dr Eklund.

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